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Preconditioning the market: Strategic choice of India

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Friday, 9 November 2018


Very much like Israel, India has been on a war-footing from its very independence; and at no point since, has it felt more comfortable and superior to its original threat than now, again, just like Israel. That does not automatically place India on the global-power pathway: another not-so-new threat emerged, not to mention other policies than defence demanding a share of the country's still meagre resources to serve as a global power. Yet, military security remains behind the country's policy-making steering-wheel even as its phenomenal economic might suggests it can deliver at the world leadership level.
China's original threat, certainly after Pakistan is for India, has climbed stupendously, not so much from battlefield performances, but from the sheer weight of China's ascendance, as it descends from the blue to world leadership rivalry. As China's strategic attention shifts to the United States, India finds opportunities to play a power-balancing game at the global level. Not only have cordial Indo-US relations also turned strategic, but they also mirror a similar predicament faced by other countries needing company, anchor, and ally: Australia and Japan, to begin with, but also a Russia India had greater affinity with in the form of the Soviet Union until the 1980s. India seems to be neither jumping ship from Russia to the United States, though at times one could almost vow on that unfolding now, but nor is it keeping Russia over and above the United States as it would the Soviet Union over the United States before.
Navigating India's current foreign policy ocean, its desire to also be an economic leader, if possible at the global level, but clearly at the regional, shows a maiden Indian interest. Its previous global leadership instruments were principles and rhetoric: from non-alignment to democracy, frayed though its own version used to be compared to western countries, and severely challenged as it is today. Shifting from ideological to materialistic leadership instruments spun off the auspicious neo-liberal reform that Finance Minister Manmohan Singh initiated in 1991 (and to become India's first non-Hindu prime minister in 2004). That perhaps opened up more new windows for a dormant 'power' and galvanised so much more soft-power resources that India has since been seen as a world leader economically: it just nudged France as the world's fifth largest economy, and has, for years now, even outpaced China in the world's highest growth-rate race. With a far younger average population, it is a huge challenge to the four countries before it (the United States, China, Japan, and Germany, in that order), and set to overtake China as the planet's most populous and youngest leadership aspirant soon.
This stirs what is called the Sino-Indian rivalry one-half of a century after India was embarrassed by an ill-equipped communist China in the Himalayas during 1962 (border disputes go back to the 1914 Simla Convention Britain forged against Chinese rejection). This was again repeated in Doklam, off Bhutan, only last year: India is in no shape to match China's military might still, let alone engage in a conflict alone; and how far its other like-minded 'allies' go to back India up remains the unfolding test of time.
Beginning with the United States, both share a Major Defence Partner (MDP) affiliation, indicating how far both have come from the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War when India's August treaty with the Soviet Union was to prevent the US Seventh Fleet from physically and psychologically influencing northern Bay of Bengal developments. It has been presently exempted from the Iran sanctions the United States imposed only last week, and suitably so since the United States needs the help of countries like India to defang Pakistan and the Taleban in Afghanistan. Even its S-400 missile system and S-30 fighter-aircraft acquisitions from the Soviet Union were overlooked by the United States in a way Turkey's similar purchases was not. Without batting an eyelid, India has become what Zamir Awan calls "the net benefactor of the current geopolitical situation" (Asia Times, October 23, 2018, from: http://atimes.com/india-the-net-beneficiary-of-current-geopo...).
In other areas, its savvy geopolitical game involves Japan. Narendra Modi's Tokyo visit last month, the latest summit in a growing and deepening bilateral relationship, led to a logistics agreement that has nothing but China painted as adversary. It allows both to access each other's bases, on the naval front the Andaman and Nicobar islands, and on the army front, joint exercises in such sensitive locations as Mizoram, both for Japan. It is building its submarine fleet with external help in which Israel has emerged as a major partner given Modi's Israel visit in July 2017 and Benjamin Netanyahu's India's visit in January 2018. Along with Japan, it is a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) with Australia and the United States, and though Australia is going slow on this front given China being its largest trading partner, the QSD calendar has been getting filled with lots of joint naval exercises.
Catching up with China requires India's military, again, for the first time, to also be complemented by a bustling, leadership-like economy: its stagnating protectionist middle name before 1990 thwarted that necessary leap. Today India is everywhere in the region as an economic crusader. Its 'Look East' policy-approach, also from 1991, was elevated into 'Act East' from 2014, with many projects in its wings: a Kolkata-Ho Chi Minh highway, expanding the currently under-construction India-Myanmar-Thailand highway, and the Northeast Provinces being connected to the Bay through Myanmar's Sittwe port (one reason why the Rohingyas were evicted from Rakhine was to clear passage for the construction). China is also doing likewise with Myanmar (and equally to blame for Rohingya eviction), but the bottom-line should not be missed: we all know of China's trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative girdling India with naval ports, even as close as Gwador in the Arabian Sea and Hambantota on the Indian Ocean, but India has its own less-illustrious version of a 'ring-around-southern-China' if it can cultivate its economic relations with Southeast Asian countries: already it has a partnership, and a lot more goodwill in that region than any other Asian country.
It will be another wonder of the modern world if India can replicate China's modernisation, even over a longer time-span (more than one generation), but the embedded and universal belief that it can arm India with many more voluntary friends than China has managed through its largesse supply, unlimited loans, and arm-twisting terms.
In the final analysis, all of these count. India can not only rely on Russia to help out as a Plan B against the western US-led Plan A, but Russia can also soften China's claws from tearing into India: both BRICS (Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa) and SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) have significant Indian presence. Topping the ice-cream of new relations, China and India are significant trade partners too: the largest partner India has is China, replete with yawning deficits for India. This is another choke-point a positive bilateral relationship might presently offer.
India may be up to its knees in global power rivalry to retreat; but it is how its economic capabilities take off that might determine any ascendancy.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.
imtiaz.hussain@iub.edu.bd